America: Where Retirees Are Tricked Into Regretting a Busted Savings System

“If we give people a totally garbage system and then make them feel bad about not having succeeded in it, that's just so saddening.”

A man with a cane is silhouetted against water spraying from fountains.
Salvator Barki / Getty

When older people are asked in surveys how they feel about their finances, one feeling reliably bubbles up to the surface: regret. They wish they’d socked away more money for retirement when they were younger. In the U.S., where about a third of Baby Boomers had no money saved in retirement plans as of 2014, regret is an all-too-common indicator of deeper financial distress, even though, generally speaking, they shouldn’t be blaming themselves.

For instance, 59 percent of the roughly 1,600 60-to-79-year-old Americans surveyed in a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research said that if they were given a chance to live their lives over again starting in their 40s, they’d have saved differently. While wealthier respondents were much less likely to report regretting their past financial planning, about 39 percent of the wealthiest respondents still did report regret. (One of the most common things people thought they spent too much money on was vacation; cars and clothing also ranked highly for men and women, respectively.)

The paper found that a main source of this regret was not that people lacked the self-control to save, but rather that they were caught off guard by life. “Sometimes they will ignore or entirely deny the possibility of facing major life-course disasters such as prolonged unemployment, divorce, or a health [issue] that limits the ability to work,” the paper’s authors write.

Other surveys have also looked at regret. The financial-information website Bankrate and the student-loans company LendEDU have each put out studies indicating that American adults’ most common financial regret is not saving enough for retirement. Likewise, an executive at the asset-management firm American Century Investments said late last year that people tend to regret their retirement-savings decisions “more than not being a better person or having better personal relationships.”

Yet focusing on regret obscures the real reasons that retired Americans feel stretched financially—it pins a structural problem on the individual. “They think they screwed it up themselves, and I think most policy makers in this field would say that’s just not very accurate,” says William Birdthistle, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law and the author of Empire of the Fund: The Way We Save Now. “It is a system with all sorts of problems in it, but the individuals’ mistakes … are actually very low on the totem pole.”

Higher up on the totem pole is the way American workers are expected to save. Over the past four decades, American employers have drifted away from pensions and toward 401(k) plans, which put more responsibility to save on the worker. “And at the same time, we didn’t offer any training—people don’t get any training in how to manage a 401(k) or what a mutual fund is. They’re not taught in any systematic way in high school or in college,” says Birdthistle. And that is to say nothing of the many workers whose employers don’t provide 401(k)s or who simply don’t have the money to set aside in a retirement account as they tend to their daily expenses.

So, Birdthistle says, it’s no wonder that people feel anguished when a bunch of things that research has shown people to be bad at—realizing it’s important to save for the future, actually doing so, and then picking a good mix of investments—don’t work out. And to ask them if they regret it all is an additional insult. “If we … give people a totally garbage system and then make them feel bad about not having succeeded in it, that’s just so saddening,” Birdthistle says. Regret is something that should be reserved not for retirees’ decisions, but for the system in which they were made.